Cultural Cohesion, p.57Clive James
This prevalent fault of lumpishness—so unfaithful to Montale’s conversational urbanity—is exacerbated by a light peppering of strange English usages, or misusages. On page 57, to take one example, “the game is up” should be “the game’s afoot” or possibly “the game is on,” but as it stands it means the exact opposite of what Montale wrote. “Poetry is the art that is technically available to everyone: all it takes is a piece of paper and a pencil and the game is up.” On page 134, “gild the pill” literally translates the Italian expression (indorare la pillola) but in English sounds like an unhappy conflation of “gild the lily” and “sugar the pill,” which mean something separately but not a lot together.
The Second Life of Art, of the books in English by or concerned with Montale, is easily the most important to date. Of the books in Italian, Prime alla Scala has been long awaited. From 1954 to 1967 Montale wrote regular opera notices for the Corriere d’Informazione. It was always clear that when the pieces were collected the resulting volume would be one of the strongest on his short shelf. But the complete work, which he did not live to see published, is beyond expectation. It shows him at his best: in love with the subject and full of things to say.
Montale attended most of the La Scala first nights in the great period when much of the conducting was being done by his ideal maestro, Gianandrea Gavazzeni. The bel canto operas were being rediscovered, mainly because of Callas. Early and middle Verdi was being honoured for the first time as the full equivalent of the later operas and not just as the preparation for them. Meanwhile it was becoming ever clearer that the tradition could be added to only by reassessing the past. The new composers, with the qualified exceptions of Stravinsky and Britten, lacked the secret.
Montale’s criticism, underpinned by his early training as a singer, was part of all this. The book abounds with solid detail. (“Her diction was clear and precisely articulated,” he says of Callas, “even if her almost Venetian Italian rendered difficult the doubling of consonants.”) Beyond that, in his usual way, he draws conclusions about art in general. The crisis in music is traced as it happens, by someone who was there, in 1916, at the first performance of one of Leoncavallo’s last operas and lived to hear the endlessly repeated notes of a new work by Nono bore the audience starry-eyed in the name of social awareness. Yet Montale’s own repeated note is one of endurance, a refusal to be crushed under the weight of justifiable pessimism: the new composers might have lost touch with any possible public except themselves, but Bellini lives again, Verdi is reborn in full glory, the past enthralls the present and reminds it of what art is. In the modern era there is no way for music not to be self-conscious. Being that, it has small chance of being spontaneous. But Montale, remembering how he himself found a way of being both, always talks as if other people might somehow manage it too.
These are necessary books about the arts, in a troubled period when one of the threats facing the arts is that there are too many books about them. Montale said he thought of journalism as his secondo mestiere, the day-job whose demands relegated his real calling, poetry, to evenings and spare time. But the fact that he was obliged to spend so much time thus earning a living is a good reason for liking the age we live in—a liking that he shared, despite everything. He was the kind of pessimist who makes you feel optimistic, even when he can’t do the same for himself.
London Review of Books, February–March 1983;
later included in Snakecharmers in Texas, 1988
Sadly, the first thing I feel bound to say about this essay on Montale is that I still believe he was a great artist. It shouldn’t need saying. But all too soon after his death his copybook was retroactively blotted in a big way. It emerged that a good few, and perhaps most, of his reviews of books in the English language had been written by someone else. Montale had made a practice of handing the book to a subaltern, specifying the word length, publishing the results under his own name, and splitting the payment. If it had been discovered that Vermeer had known van Meegeren personally, and actually supplied him with paint, the scandal could not have been more rancid. It could be said in Montale’s defence that in Italy there has long been a tradition by which prominent painters whistle in the apprentices of their bottega to help fill the less challenging stretches of a canvas. It could also be said that in Italy there is a long tradition of outright corruption in all walks of life. At the time when Montale was posthumously rumbled, about half of Italy’s politicians were facing a stretch in gaol, and nobody was surprised except them, because when everyone is on the take the moral outrage is confined to those who get pinched. But Montale should have been above all that.
Most of the time he was. Take away the stuff he farmed out and there is still a large amount of steady, responsible, thoughtful and generous reviewing—criticism in its most nourishing form. Take all that away, and there is still the poetry, which remains near the apex of European achievement in modern times. It should subtract nothing from a quiet triumph to find out that its author was a bit more complicated than we thought. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that I was pleased when the man I revered as the epitome of selfless literary endeavour turned out to share a few characteristics with the man who fixed the World Series. But I wasn’t displeased either; just even more fascinated. The way to avoid that kind of fascination is to concern yourself entirely with art and learn nothing about artists: an impossible ideal and probably a hollow one. There are still a few major compositions by Stravinsky that I haven’t sat down to listen to properly. I could have devoted some of the time to them that I spent reading the first volume of Stephen Walsh’s biography. It reveals Stravinsky to have been a nasty piece of work in several respects. But I don’t, on that account, love the music I already know any the less, and might even feel inspired to search through the rest of it with reinvigorated concentration, having found out that the demigod really was a human being all along. There was something perfect about Montale, and now there isn’t, but somehow the bones of the cuttlefish are picked cleaner than ever, now that the soul which chose them for an emblem of purity turns out to have dealt the occasional card from the bottom of the deck.
Reliable Essays, 2001
N. V. RAMPANT MEETS
“This is the big one,” I told myself nervously. “The Martin Amis interview. This is the one that could make you or break you.” As I neared his front door my heart was in my mouth.
No doubt he would have said it more cleverly. He would have said his heart was palpitating with trepidation like a poodle in heat in a monastery of mastiffs. Oh yes, he had the long words, Martin Amis. And he knew how to use them. He not only had the metaphors, he knew exactly what words like “metaphor” meant. He knew what “trepidation” meant. They had told him at Oxford. He had the education. He wasn’t going to let you forget it. I asked myself: Why not cut your losses and get out now? But no, I told myself: because you’ve got something to offer too. Otherwise why would the oh-so-famous Amis be available at all?
“Come in,” said a familiar voice when I knocked with trepidation. (Yes, I knew what the word meant. It was only fooling back there when I pretended I didn’t.) “The door’s open. Just push it.” Yeah, pushing it, I couldn’t help thinking. Maybe that’s what you’ve been doing, Martin, old son. Or Mart, as your friends call you. Your very powerful friends who can make or break a reputation with a flick of the telephone.
On the hallway occasional table was a copy of the collected works of Shakespeare, left oh-so-carelessly lying around so as to impress the less well-read. Well, I had heard of Shakespeare, so no luck there, Martin. But where was Martin?
Then I saw him lurking behind the volume of Shakespeare. Martin Amis, the oh-so-lauded so-called giant of his literary generation, was only four inches high.
“Glad you could make it. Glad in more ways than one,” said Martin in his self-consciously deep voice. “Usually I drop down to the floor on a thread of cotto
Lost the thread in more ways than one, I thought, Martin, old son. Especially in this new book of yours, Money. But I didn’t say so. I couldn’t risk the notorious scorn, the laserlike contempt of his brilliantly educated mind. And I hated myself because I didn’t say so. And I hated him. But not as much as I hated his book. “Congratulations on a masterpiece,” I said non-committally. “I laughed continuously for two weeks and finally had to be operated on so that I could eat.” It was a tactful way of saying that I hadn’t been as bowled over as he might fondly imagine.
“Thanks,” said the oh-so-blasé so-called genius, taking it as his due. “Do you think you could give me a lift?”
He stepped into my open hand and I carried him into the study, where I put him down on his desk beside his typewriter. I could see now that I had been wrong about his being four inches high. He was three inches high. To depress the typewriter keys he must have to jump on them individually, and altering the tab-set would need a mountain-climbing expedition. I began to pity him. I could see now why he had chosen literary success.
But I could also see why I had not chosen it. So I was grateful to him. Grateful to Martin Amis, the post-punk Petronius. Yes, Mart. I’ve heard of Petronius. You didn’t get all the education. There was some left over for the rest of us, right?
Through the ostentatiously open door of the bathroom I had noticed that the bidet was full of signed first editions of books by Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and other members of the most powerful literary mafia to hit London since old Dr. Ben Johnson ruled the roost. When I carried Martin through into the kitchen for that so-long-delayed welcoming drink, the refrigerator was full of French Impressionist lithographs piled up ostentatiously so that the casual visitor couldn’t help seeing them. “Antonia gave me those,” said the would-be neo-Swift oh-so-self-deprecatingly. “She said after Money I should write a book about Monet or Manet.” He chuckled, pleased with his ostentatious modesty. Pleased with the secret language he shares only with his friends. With his friends and the beautiful Antonia Phillips, who just happens to control the Times Literary Supplement.
All of Martin’s friends control something but this is the first time he has married one. Perhaps he will marry them all. I began to wonder who would marry me. Suddenly I noticed that Martin Amis was now only two inches high.
“Look,” said Martin. “I feel I’m sort of disappearing. Do you think we could cut this short?” I was only too glad.
For finally I couldn’t see what it was all meant to prove. Yes, he had published a novel every two months for ten years, was talked of in the same breath as balls-aching old Balzac, and had won the hand of one of the leading beauties of the day. But so what? He had never written a profile for the Sunday Times Magazine. He had spent too much time locked away reading all those books to know what was really going on in the London he was oh-so-celebrated for allegedly knowing intimately. Had he read any of my books, for instance? So far they existed only in manuscript, but they had enjoyed a pretty wide circulation among those not too proud—not too old, let’s face it—to pick up a samizdat without using rubber gloves. Had he read The Sandra Documents? Had he read Offed Infants and Tonto People? Would he even bother to hear about my soon-to-be-forthcoming The Aimed Sock?
I should never have taken this assignment. He was afraid of me. Afraid of what I represented. Afraid of someone who was better at what he had always been best at—being young. Being unknown. Once he had been unknown. That had been what he had been famous for. But now he was not, and it was killing him.
When we shook hands in farewell at his front door, Martin Amis was barely one inch high. There was an empty milk bottle on the doorstep. I started to put him down carefully beside it. Then I changed my mind and put him down carefully inside it. Halfway down the street I looked back. No bigger than a bacillus with delusions of grandeur, he was drumming with microscopic fists as he slid down inside the curved wall where the side of the bottle met its base. His thin voice cried: “I need you! I need you!”
I had him where I wanted him at last.
London Review of Books, October 18–31, 1984;
later included in Snakecharmers in Texas, 1988
The many models for this parody barely needed to be goosed. All I had to do was echo their tone: a new and deadly combination of admiration and hatred. When Martin Amis came to his early prominence, the journalists who wrote about him, if they were the same age or younger, invariably discovered within themselves not only his ambitions, but his capacities. Today, young journalists who get fifteen minutes with George Clooney are unlikely to blame him for the slow progress of their film careers. Martin Amis met one undiscovered novelist after another, and in every case was led to deduce, from what they wrote about him, that he was the reason they were undiscovered. It was a new twist in culture-section journalism that I followed with fascination: talent as an object of blame.
More recently, Martin Amis’s position as an object of fame and blame has led to unfortunate distortions in these areas of discussion on which he chooses to impinge as a commentator. A conspicuous example is provided by the publicity surrounding his book on Stalinism, Koba the Dread. Reviewing it, some of the historians pointed out, quite accurately, that its facts were not new. In Britain, a swarm of journalists took the opportunity to say that the information in the book was old hat. In this mini-consensus of the minimally gifted, there were two flagrant lies. One was the lie involved in overlooking the fact that a whole new generation would hear about the subject merely because Martin Amis had taken immense trouble to collate the relevant literature and express the necessary conclusions in a style brilliantly adapted to a general audience. The other lie, however, was the harsher: the quiet suggestion that they themselves, the journalists, had already been in possession of the historical truth. I can think of precisely one journalist for whom that might have been so. All the rest were bluffing.
Hitler’s Willing Executioners by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
There was a hair-raising catchphrase going around in Germany just before the Nazis came to power. Besser ein Ende mit Schrecken als ein Schrecken ohne Ende. Better an end with terror than terror without end. Along with Nazi sympathizers who had been backing Hitler’s chances for years, ordinary citizens with no taste for ideological politics had reached the point of insecurity where they were ready to let the Nazis in. The Nazis had caused such havoc in the streets that it was thought that only they could put a stop to it. They did, but the order they restored was theirs. When it was over, after twelve short years of the promised thousand, the memory lingered, a long nightmare about what once was real. It lingers still, causing night sweats. A cool head is hard to keep. Proof of that is Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s new book Hitler’s Willing Executioners, provocatively subtitled “Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust.” Hailed in the publisher’s preliminary hype by no less an authority than the redoubtable Simon Schama as “the fruit of phenomenal scholarship and absolute integrity,” it is a book to be welcomed, but hard to welcome warmly. It advances knowledge while subtracting from wisdom, and whether the one step forward is worth the two steps back is a nice question. Does pinning the Holocaust on what amounts to a German “national character” make sense? I don’t think it does, and in the light of the disturbingly favourable press endorsement that Goldhagen has already been getting, it becomes a matter of some urgency to say why.
The phenomenal scholarship can be safely conceded: Schama and comparable authorities are unlikely to be wrong about that. Tunnelling long and deep into hitherto only loosely disturbed archives, Goldhagen has surfaced with persuasive evidence that the Holocaust, far from being, as we have been encouraged to think, characteristically the work of cold-blooded technocrats dispassionately organizing mass disapp
The book concludes, in short, that there is no point making a mystery of how a few Germans were talked into it when there were so many of them who could scarcely be talked out of it. Since we have undoubtedly spent too much time wrestling with the supposedly complex metaphysics of how an industrious drone like Eichmann could be induced to despatch millions to their deaths sight unseen, and not half enough time figuring out how thousands of otherwise healthy men and women were mad keen to work extra hours hands-on just for the pleasure of hounding their fellow human beings beyond the point of despair, this conclusion, though it is nowhere near as new and revolutionary as Goldhagen and his supporters think it is, is undoubtedly a useful one to reach.
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